After passengers share photos online of their unappetizing inflight meals, we asked aviation journalist John Walton how airplane food has changed compared with pre-pandemic times, whether there are fewer choices, and how meal standards are evolving. 

What’s up with airline food? The classic standup line was echoing through my mind as I scrolled with a grimace as pictures of a particularly rough-looking airline meal, notionally a pasta bolognese, went viral on social media recently, and it wasn’t a one-off

This time it was on a transatlantic flight aboard US-Europe powerhouse Aer Lingus, which connects a dozen North American cities with European destinations over its Dublin hub. 

And it’s not the only one recently: easyJet’s sandwich provider seems to be having a bad time of things too. I understand why this dip in standards is happening — airlines and caterers are having a rough go of it at the moment as they come back from the COVID-19 pandemic — but from the traveler's perspective, that’s not much of an excuse. 

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People have a right to expect a decent meal if airlines sell it to them as part of a ticket. But that’s complicated right now. During the pandemic, pretty much every airline cut back on inflight food, and certainly on inflight service. Shorter flights often saw all meal service removed, or passengers handed a to-go bag with something like a sandwich and a little bottle of water. Longer flights usually included options like a chilled salad or, again, a sandwich, with reduced crew contact.

Every airline is bringing back its service from the pandemic at a different rate, and each of them is certainly considering what their particular “new normal” is going to be when it comes to food. That’s even more so for the full-service airlines rather than low-cost carriers.

A spokesperson from Lufthansa, one of United’s transatlantic joint venture partners, tells us that “as the pandemic fades, our meal and service offerings are currently being successively upgraded in all classes. Before the pandemic, there was a choice of meal (non-vegetarian/vegetarian) in economy class on long-haul routes. Currently, since the beginning of the pandemic, there is only one vegetarian main course.”

At Aer Lingus, a spokesperson says that the airline “offers customers traveling with us to North America with a complimentary meal. We serve a selection of meat and vegetarian dishes, such as beef bolognese with pasta, chicken with pepper sauce & rice and vegetarian chili with potato wedges, as well as special dietary options along with complimentary soft drinks and water. A full bar with alcoholic beverages and snacks from our Bia range is available to purchase throughout the flight.”

On longer flights, like the US west coast, the airline offers ice cream as a “mid-flight treat” plus a hot snack. On shorter flights, mainly the US east coast, it’s a wrap (which didn’t exactly look generous) with a “sweet treat” plus tea and coffee, with some free snacks also available.

“During COVID,” the airline explains, “the meal and drinks service were combined to reduce touchpoints. We are now getting back to our pre-Covid meal service by separating out our bar and meal service and are working towards including a greater choice of vegetarian dishes and implementing more sustainable packaging.”

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The best of what you can hope for when it comes to airplane food
The best of what you can hope for when it comes to airplane food © Chalabala / Getty

Airlines don’t make money from serving you food… unless you’re paying extra on board

As a person with some common sense who travels with their eyes open, your initial thought might be that the changes are all about saving money. To a fairly large extent, that’s true. For most airlines, food is basically a “hygiene factor”, something that they have to offer but don’t make money on. 

Most airlines that are for-profit companies — rather than government-run exercises in raising their national image overseas — are in the same boat: they know that very, very few people will choose an airline based on anything other than price and schedule, and certainly not on food. So, their incentive (unspoken or spoken) is to keep food slightly above the level of “riot on the plane”.

No airline or caterer we asked was willing to talk to us on the record about the extent to which airlines are cutting costs on food at the moment: “pricing is a confidential topic in our industry,” explains a spokesperson from caterers LSG Group, “but hybrid models become more interesting as carriers try to create a new source of revenue by selling food on board”.

That’s a model that a growing number of airlines are using, offering a basic meal plus the option to buy something more onboard. Going back to the Aer Lingus example, take a look at the PDF of their current Bia menu, which highlights the range of chocolates, cake, biscuits and bars plus porridge, hummus and savory snacks for sale on transatlantic flights in addition to the meal.

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The problem for this airline is that what it’s providing isn’t really matching what it’s advertising. Take a look at the meals it’s showing on its website, with the large pieces of roasted chicken, substantial amounts of veg, a hearty helping of potatoes and a colorful salad side that’s practically overflowing, and then compare with that unattractive pasta dish on Twitter. 

There’s always a bit of a disconnect between advertising and reality, as anyone who’s ever ordered anything from a fast-food chain will know, but this seems to be taking it a bit far.

Again, it’s by no means the only one here, but airlines need to be upfront with passengers about what they’re going to get: don’t promise something nice and then fail to deliver it.

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The tiny galley where your plane food is stored and heated
The tiny galley where your plane food is stored and heated © Tony Studio / Getty Images

Airlines themselves are trying to figure out the future of airline food

Many airlines are also looking at the post-pandemic situation as something of a “great reset” of those passenger expectations. Whenever you see an airline’s food standards dropping, it’s not overly paranoid to wonder if they are looking to move to paid food and dipping their standards to be able to say “77% of passengers say they want better food, so we’re giving it to them with our new buy-on-board service!”. 

But in a lot of different ways, post-COVID cost-cutting— and indeed other problems — might not immediately be visible.

As one example, pretty much everyone is having problems with staffing right now, and that’s certainly true for airline catering companies, airport catering staff and other workers in the complex chain of getting fresh food to your plane. 

As another example, many airlines are still operating with fewer flight attendants on the aircraft than pre-pandemic, as a way to try to get themselves back in the financial black. That means there’s a balance between bringing back more complete meals, which might take more time to reheat and serve, and managing to serve everyone on the plane quickly.

Will we get back to the days of celebrity chef partnerships — even for economy food — and expansive menus? Maybe, but it’ll probably look more like the Tom Kerridge-branded sandwiches that British Airways offers for sale than the Heston Blumenthal-partnered shepherd’s pie it offered ten years ago.

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